"In the Heights" Centers Latinx Joy Instead of Trauma

·7 min read

The long-awaited film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In the Heights is a step in the right direction for Latinx representation in Hollywood, but as the creator admitted this week, there’s more work to be done in telling stories that highlight the experiences of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx people, too. With the film’s major message emphasizing the idea that Latinx people are not a monolith, the casting of the film — its main cast is mostly light-skinned Latinx actors — feels distinctly out of place. While it’s amazing and beautiful to see non-white people given the spotlight on the big screen, there’s more that the industry can do to address colorism in Hollywood.

After all, In the Heights is already changing the kinds of big-budget stories Hollywood tells. The film turns Hollywood’s Latinx stereotypes on its head. It replaces one-dimensional representations of a vast and diverse group of peoples with characters that add nuance and complexity. It’s a landmark case for the importance of telling Latinx stories that don’t emphasize trauma or stereotypes, and it’s proof that these stories are worth telling.

Scroll through any one of Netflix’s dedicated Latinx categories and you’ll find a list of films and TV shows that, perhaps unknowingly, center Latinx pain and lean into Latinx stereotypes. That’s not the case for In the Heights, which focuses on a close-knit group of neighbors in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood that fight to make their sueñitos (little dreams) come true. The film centers Latinx joy and, in doing so, helps fill a void in representation that Hollywood has been lacking for decades.

Pervasive stories that glamorize Latinx trauma and use false clichés are an industry-wide problem that starts with an insistence on treating Latinx people as a monolith. We see this in movies like West Side Story and Mi Vida Loca, which center Latinx people as violent gangbangers, or in TV shows like Modern Family which stereotype Latinas as through Sofia Vergara’s character Gloria Delgado-Pritchett. No one Latinx experience is the same, but the continual reliance on Latinx stereotypes in Hollywood contributes to a harmful narrative that desperately needs to change.

“There’s no secret that Hollywood has been built on decades of racism, discrimination, sexism, and more,” Chicana co-founder and co-host of Latinx Lens Rosa Parra tells Teen Vogue. “Latinos have embodied characters such as the Latin lover, maids, criminals, gang members. The argument isn’t that Latinos don’t exist within these interpretations, the argument is that Latinos are not only these types of people. There’s still a grand deal of work to do in terms of representation.”

And that work is in progress, by creators who center multifaceted Latinx experiences. Best-selling Colombian-American author Alex Aster has long advocated for Latinx representation in publishing with her award-winning novels rooted in Colombian mythology. “The portrayal of Latinx people in Hollywood often focuses on negative topics and pain,” Aster says. “Anyone who tries to categorize Latinx stories as niche is missing a huge opportunity. Latinx culture is not only filled with vivid, original myths, music, and history, it is also a huge part of American viewership.”

Latinx people have the highest annual attendance at the movies and are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, yet their representation on screen is in many ways worse in the 2010s than it was 70 years ago. Across the 100 top-grossing films from 2007-2018, a 2019 report found that only 3 percent of these films featured leads or co-leads with Latinx actors. That doesn’t begin to touch upon the lack of queer or disabled Latinx representation, or the number of Latinx roles being given to Spanish actors.

“It would be a disservice to classic movies and TV shows like Real Women Have Curves and Taina to say that there has been no good representation at all, but sadly the stereotypical archetypes of the Latinx community have typically included violence or an exploited look at individuals in service industry jobs,” Colombian-American filmmaker Kim Hoyos says. Hoyos is a Latinx filmmaker and the founder of the Light Leaks, a brand dedicated to uplifting female and gender-nonconforming filmmakers. “I think that the limited portrayal of Latinx people in Hollywood has also been focused on White Latinos and has not included Afro Latinos or the broad range of identities that ‘Latinos’ can hold.”

In the Heights is a positive step forward, but it should hopefully set the stage for even more stories to be told by and for Latinx people, and especially Afro-Latinx people with darker skin. That’s what will continue to address larger stereotypes with how Latinx people are portrayed onscreen. Not only is there a considerable gap in authentic Latinx stories being told in Hollywood, there are overall less Latinx people in Hollywood altogether, on and off screen. With few seats at the table, it’s hard to transform these hardened stereotypes that threaten our very existence.

“I would love for Latinx stories to be portrayed genuinely, by Latinx people, and also with the same resources and marketing as big-budget productions,” Aster explains. “They should not solely be marketed to Latinx people, but to all people, the same way most movies and shows are. They should not be solely labeled or defined by their cultural influence either. Labeling often leads to our stories being seen as less mainstream.”

Latinx stories are not niche and deserve to be told without an emphasis on trauma, which is why the In the Heights adaptation is so refreshing. Yes, it shows the hardships Latinx immigrants and first-generation people face, but those are not the sole focus of the film. Instead, the movie emphasizes sueñitos, and the bonds that bring the neighborhood together. Love, friendship, and chosen family bring Latinx happiness to the forefront, emphasizing the beauty of this particular Latinx story as opposed to the strife. It is a vibrant and much-needed ode to joy, and the perfect example of letting Latinx people tell our stories.

“There's one musical number, Carnaval del Barrio, where several Latin American flags are represented,” Parra says. “For me, watching the Mexican flag being flown in a celebratory manner overwhelmed me with emotions. I'm so used to seeing the Mexican flag in films being associated with drug cartels, immigration, corruption, and overall negative images that seeing this film wave it with such pride brought tears to my eyes.”

Hoyos echoed Parra’s emotions. “I’ve never seen that many Latinos on a screen in theaters. It was life-changing,” she says. “As a daughter of immigrants, I’m constantly fighting to make space for my dreams while managing the responsibilities and commitments I have to my family, and the high expectations I have for myself. I feel this movie captured those complicated feelings so well because it was written and created with love.”

Parra notes how In the Heights humanizes its characters and provides a much-needed complexity to Latinx characters that’s often overlooked. The film allows current social-political issues to arise without being the main focus and depicts a “universally relatable” theme surrounding community and family that appeals to a broad, non-Latinx audience.

“[These] characters face challenges trying to accomplish their dreams, but nothing to do with violence, guns, or trauma porn,” Parra says. “None of these individuals are antagonists, and that was refreshing.”

While In the Heights is one step in the right direction for Latinx representation in Hollywood, it’s not lost on reviewers like Parra how long it’s taken for a film like this to be given the spotlight.

“At the end of the day, it’s show business and money speaks volumes,” Parra said. “This is why it's important to not only vocally advocate for Latino representation but take the extra step to support these films and shows. If we don't put in the numbers then these shows are likely to get canceled and films won't be made.”

Let us slide into your DMs. Sign up for the Teen Vogue daily email.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: “In the Heights” Star Gregory Diaz IV Talks Sonny, That Pool Scene, and Telling Meaningful Stories

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue